Insights – NAPLAN – striking the balance

Dear Community,

This week our students across Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 broke from their regular teaching and learning cycle to complete the annual NAPLAN tests. These are nation-wide assessments conducted in the areas of reading, grammar, spelling, writing and numeracy. For the first time in 2019 these tests have been conducted via computer instead of the traditional hand-written format. While this has grabbed some headlines due to connectivity issues, the tests ran quite smoothly at our school.

In what is becoming an associated annual tradition, the NAPLAN test brings about passionate debate with proponents and opponents of the test filling opinion pages and letters to the editor every May to discuss its merits and detriments.

Proponents argue that the test offers important benchmarking and creates accountability measures for schools. Opponents bemoan a multiple-choice test designed for efficient mass correction that shifts the emphasis from quality teaching and learning to superficial test performance.

I believe that much nuance is lost in the binary nature of the debate around NAPLAN. In my view the issue with NAPLAN is not in the nature of the test, it is in how it is used as a political football to criticise teachers or challenge the allocation of resources.

At King David we view the NAPLAN as a snapshot in time which can provide meaningful information about how our students have performed on the discrete areas assessed in the test. We do not view this as an objective determinant of how smart our students are, nor how brilliant our teachers are. Rather, we use the tests in three main ways – as one of many datasets on individual student progression, as a signpost on any areas a cohort might need reinforcing and as a measure of schoolwide trends in relation to curriculum attainment.

We choose not to lose our heads over NAPLAN. It would be extremely counterproductive if our teachers felt pressured to throw out the creative classroom pedagogy, excursions and immersive experiential learning opportunities to drill on test performance. There is no doubt that this has been the case in some schools and is an unfortunate by-product of high stakes testing.

For the tests to mean anything, we need to understand how our students naturally perform as a consequence of our regular teaching approach. We believe that our school community has sufficient trust in our educators that there is no unwarranted pressure to overemphasise NAPLAN performance as a determinant of school or teacher quality. That allows us the freedom to use NAPLAN responsibly as one of myriad inputs that we use to assess and adjust our approaches.

We use externally generated benchmarked tests, in-class assessments, classroom observations, student reflections, peer and parent input to constantly question how we can adjust our teaching approach to best meet the developmental growth of each of our students.

An important message that is lost in the NAPLAN debate is that while reading, writing, spelling, grammar and numeracy are vital, so too are creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and other inter-personal skills. A downside of a school community’s disproportionate emphasis on NAPLAN could be to reduce the opportunities to foster development of these important ‘soft’ skills.

I firmly believe that at King David we have struck an appropriate and educationally responsible balance with regards to our approach to NAPLAN. We see this as one of many opportunities to gauge individual and cohort progress but deemphasise the associated politicisation or performance pressure that can be associated with the test.

Most importantly, we appreciate that through prioritising active partnership and positive communication with our families, alongside extensive teacher training and development, that we are able to generate confidence in our educational vision and process.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light

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